Night sky, larger than life


I began learning about a universe beyond the bounds of Summit County, Ohio, on a dark summer night full of fireflies and fatherly wisdom. My dad and I had set up a rickety card table in our rural yard to begin drafting a star map of the heavens. It was going to be great. And when we’d finished translating all those distant dots to paper that night or perhaps the next, I would connect all the stars in the sky with dotted lines to reveal the ancient shapes secreted in their celestial positionings.

While crickets chirped and the road fell silent, I meticulously noted star after star from above and drew it on paper below. I had downloaded perhaps two dozen of those twinkling worlds when I noticed something quite strange. The stars I’d placed in one spot were now over there. The stars were moving. “No, they’re not,” my father said. “We’re moving.”

Now, if you want to engage the imagination of an 8-year-old standing in the somnolent stillness of a summer night, have an unchallengeable authority like his father tell him he’s moving -- when obviously nothing is moving in the dark yard except the St. Bernard’s tail.


Thus began a continuing lifelong personal quest to experience the midnight mysteries of stargazing. The ancients did it, naming the stars and constellations and seeing futures foretold in them. Others watched stars to navigate on land and sea. I’ve stargazed from many lands and spots, sometimes seriously, most times idly, sometimes standing, other times reclining; so far, Montana is by far the best, standing or reclining.

My goal is nothing so grand as fortune-telling. All I want is to experience the gargantuan scale of the sky, its superlative census of stars and the compelling sense of inconsequence that comes with that.

The first thought of modern Americans, most of whom live in cities, is not to look up. In neighborhood streets, you turn to the left and right, straight ahead and behind. Most of everything you see there is made by the hands of humans. Much of it impressive. But, absent the clatter of a hovering helicopter, looking up? What for? It’s empty.

When the average Angeleno walks outside tonight and looks up from his seemingly stationary yard, he’ll see about 400 stars. When the average rural Californian looks up tonight, he’ll see about 2,500 stars. When the average professional telescope scans tonight’s sky, it can see 100 billion stars. That’s roughly half the star population of our galaxy, the Milky Way, the other half visible from the other half of Earth if it wasn’t daytime over there.

Looking up at night, witnessing the unfathomable scale, secretly hanging there above your head -- whether in the city or well beyond its lights -- is a powerful experience, akin perhaps to living beside the untamed wilderness that once united residents of rural American towns. When so much vastness looms over us, humans in pairs or communities tend to feel closer, to help each other, to share a social consideration often absent today until cataclysm -- a storm, quake or landslide -- brings us together.

An integral pleasure of stargazing is drifting amid the scale of such thoughts. Lying on your back and allowing direct and peripheral vision to mingle with curiosity, you will find the all-enveloping scale staggers the mere mind. By day a mountain range or a modern city can seem mammoth, but at night it pales into forgettable insignificance stacked against the sky. Just our galaxy alone is 100,000 light-years across with each light-year equaling 6 trillion miles. It makes the drive to Las Vegas seem minuscule.


Everything -- the infinite distances, the fires burning out there, the gigantic gaseous elements, the alien worlds -- is larger than us. It is a strange yet comforting humility that seeps into the consciousness. No wonder primitive peoples saw their gods in the sky.

Just being in the conscious presence of such immensity relaxes the mind, lets it free-associate, recharge, even heal. Once in my youth, I agonized over a botched bunt in a critical Little League game. Yet as clear as that memory is today, I remember more clearly the pain washing away beneath the stars and tutelage of my father. He didn’t denigrate my concern, didn’t say there were more important things to ponder. Sitting there on the damp grass scanning the sky for colors, patterns, flashes, he didn’t have to.

And therein lies the intoxicating beauty of something so enduring. There is a rule in Japanese gardens that some aspect of each element must be hidden. Every rock, tree, pond and path must be at least partially obscured. That device silently involves the mind, engaging the imagination. The same holds true for a dark sky. What is out there?

There are, at current estimates, some 300 billion other Milky Ways swirling around in space. Their dynamism is constantly in play. Through powerful telescopes that can peek back in time, some galaxies appear headed for colossal collisions, while other stars, planet and gargantuan gas groupings implode or coalesce to birth themselves in unfilmed Technicolor dramas.

By the time we see some of these stars they may have already burned out. Which means that some of the starlight falling unviewed on Earth tonight was departing its relatively nearby neighborhood over half a century ago, right about the time that 8-year-old boy and his father stood with their dog by a rickety card table to look up, out and within at that obviously empty thing called the universe.


Andrew H. Malcolm, a Times staff writer, is author of “The Canadians.”